Fact check: Trump claims 'growing' crisis on southern border

Image: Border Wall
A man holds on to the border wall along the beach in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 8, 2019. Copyright Gregory Bull AP
By Jane C. Timm and Carrie Dann with NBC News Politics
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NBC News is fact checking the president's speech on the border and immigration as it happens.


President Donald Trump on Tuesday addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday to make his case for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as the partial government shutdown stretches into its third week.

NBC News is fact checking his prime-time speech as it happens.

Claim 1: The border is in crisis

The facts: America's immigration system is broken — that's something experts, advocates, and politicians across the aisle can agree on — but there's little evidence the southern border is experiencing a new state of emergency.

Though Trump has sounded the alarm over migrants arriving in record numbers, overall border crossings have actually been dropping for years. In the 1980s through the mid-2000s, the U.S. apprehended 1 million to 1.6 million immigrants caught illegally crossing the border each year. In fiscal year 2017, a combination of 415,517 people were apprehended after crossing the border illegally or were barred from entry, according to Customs and Border Protection. The White House has circulated a document indicating a projection for fiscal year 2019 of 600,000 apprehensions.

Earlier Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence claimed that 60,000 people are now attempting to enter the country each month. According toCBP data from fiscal year 2019, around 51,000 people were apprehended at the southwestern border in October and November 2018 — an uptick from earlier months — and around 10,000 were deemed inadmissible, which means they approached a legal port of entry and were turned away.

To compare, in 2000, the southwestern border sawmonthly apprehension totals of 73,458 - 223,305.

Trump and members of his administration routinely overstate the problem and need for a wall: illegal immigration doesn't cost as much as he says it does, illegal drugs largely come through legal ports of entry, not unguarded parts of the border. Violence isn't spilling over, and terrorists aren't being caught in droves trying to come in from Mexico.

And though Trump has focused on the border, illegal immigration in the U.S. is being driven by another factor: People who overstay their visas. More than701,900 people overstayed their visas during fiscal year 2017, according to the Department of Homeland Security. People who overstay their visas usually enter the country from an airport, not from the border.

Claim 2: 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the U.S.

We don't have data around that number just yet. But there has indeed been a surge of children and families apprehended at the southern border. Apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children were up 21 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, and apprehensions of families travelling together was up 42 percent during the same period.

Crossings particularly surged in October and November 2018, when 10,265 unaccompanied migrant children and 48,287 migrants travelling as families were apprehended at the border. Similarly high numbers of unaccompanied children were seen in 2014, but the numbers of families mark record highs, according to data going back to 2013.

Claim 3: Trump says the border is a "pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs"

The DEA says the vast majority of hard drugs from Mexican cartels come into the US come through legal ports of entry, which wouldn't be affected by a wall.

According to a 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment by the DEA, Mexican drug cartels "transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers. The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers."

And then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said during a Senate hearing in April 2017 that illegal drug traffic "mostly comes through the ports of entry."

It is true that hundreds of Americans die of drug overdoses involving heroin every week (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated about 300 per week in 2017), and that the majority of heroin sold in the U.S. is coming from Mexico. But again, that's mostly coming through legal ports of entry. DEA said in 2018, for example: "A small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry (POEs)."

Claim 4: "The wall will also be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal"

Even if this was the case in the broadest of senses, the agreement doesn't take effect until 2020 at the earliest. Trade experts have told fact checkers thatthere's nothing in the new trade deal that earmarks funds for the border wall. Revenue raised by tariffs are federal dollars that must be appropriated by Congress.

What's more, the trade deal must still be ratified by legislators in the three countries involved.

Claim 5: Trump says that Democrats requested a steel wall

Trump offered Democrats a steel border fence instead of a concrete wall, according to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Claim 6: Trump notes that Senate Democrats have voted for border barriers in the past

This is true. Dozens of Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did vote for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized building a fence along about 700 miles of the border between the United States and Mexico.


Trump derided that fencing in 2016 as "such a little wall, such a nothing wall."

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